Meditation Nimitta

Many people implicitly believe that coming to a complete understanding of reality involves a leap, whether it be an intuition or an insight, or some blissful experience in meditation, or a scientific or philosophical theory based upon the “givens”—those facts of experience that fill our days and our memories, and form the basis of our nervous tensions, phobias, and damaged feelings, as well as our moments of bliss and leaps of intuitive insight and conceptual theorizing. I noticed that the leaps never get one to the finish line. They may get us to a comfortable place, perhaps even a blissful one, but it’s not possible to understand reality this way.

Instead of figuring out how things are, we need to loosen the chains of both conceptual thought and the intelligible appearances that fill our experience, because even though we might be able to come to an understanding of our experiences, that understanding will always separate us from the truth because an understanding creates a something-that-is-understood, even if, through careful movements and keen insights, we never allow a someone-that-understands to arise. The understanding is itself the problem—and it is a huge problem because it is the primordial source of the illusion of separate existence.

I had an experience once in my mid-teens, sitting by a fire my friend and I had built in a weed-and-construction-debris-filled field that had been cleared as part of the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. We were living in a small shack that we had made out of wooden pallets covered with nylon hosiery fabric found in a pile of garbage from a building that had been cleared out prior to its demolition. Another vagrant, like us, had seen our fire and come up to sit and warm up a little, because the spring evenings were still cold on those city streets, especially when the only meals you had were fetched out of dumpsters behind fast food restaurants (half-eaten food still in wrappers was much more palatable than loose waste from a restaurant). “Grease,” he announced at one point. “Grease is the source of life!” “Cool, man,” I replied. What else could one say? It was my first experience of attachment to an understanding that was less grand than the holder assumed.

The process of coming to an understanding isn’t like getting to the far side of a flat field of information that one leaps over suddenly, it’s a multi-layered lasagna of misunderstandings with the consistency of a bog, that traps us in our many and varied viewpoints, leaving a long, long trail of false halts on our way to our hoped for complete transcendence. This process is founded on the belief that overcoming wrong beliefs by undoing our strong attachment to our conceptual knowledge and focusing instead on the givens, while being “in the moment,” will free us from misconceptions and misunderstandings and will allow us to transcend the factual appearances and “get to the bottom” of it all, in the fashion of a scientist approaching a problem, studying and reflecting. But you should note the way I worded that sentence, making it’s point in the repetition of reliance upon belief. Beliefs aren’t true or false, they are never true, nor false. Instead, they are always wrong to varying degrees, which is their fault, but also, to some degree true, which is their allure. And in many, many cases, the expression “half truths” really overestimates their value.

It occurred to me that holding to the possibility of “complete transcendence,” in the manner given above, is a fool’s errand based on a grave misunderstanding. That field of givens is there before us, and seemingly beckoning in a beguiling way, but only because of our need to understand, and it is this that will lead us to our doom. The truly important insight to be had there, derives from that field of givens’ presence, not from anything situated in that field. And it is the same with our conceptual thought—none of the contents of those thoughts will help us to transcend anything, even if they are the words of a respected teacher, or a world-renowned scientist. Even these words can’t… It is the presence of these thoughts, and words, and facts that is the important point.  And by “presence” I mean presencing, or arising presentially. But don’t form an understanding of that word yet… it will just be a misunderstanding.

The desire to transcend reality is a really weird appetite to have, and yet many of us have it, in one way or another, because we either find our lives to be unsatisfactory or we find ourselves annoyed by the unsettling feeling that we don’t really understand what is going on. It’s unfortunate too that the majority of people blithely live out their lives, never having taken hold of their opportunity to realize something truly important through it. For those that want out, getting to the bottom of things is the only way they can see to get out. But there is no out, no exit, no escape—Reality is an inside without an outside, so you can’t escape. But what you can do is get free of all of your misunderstandings—not by creating new ones, but by loosening the chains of the conceptual as well as the intelligible. But it has to be both of those, or like that vagrant who thought grease was the source of life, you’ll just find yourself in another storyline.

Over the course of my life, I have found that every time I thought I had gotten somewhere by coming to some new understanding, or by changing something about the way I perceived my life, all I had done was change a storyline, exchanging it for a slightly modified one, a storyline more to my liking. I had never been able to change my being in a story. For many on this path, their answer is to be found in not thinking or conceptualizing about what is, just being, just being That. While there is nothing wrong with just being That, it is still a storyline. Why do I say that? Because we hold the implicit assumption that while our conceptual thoughts, ideas, and philosophies color our perceptions with our wants and desires, hopes and dreams, hurts and insults, and dichotomies, we believe that our perceptions are something different, if left alone, something more real than illusions of the mind… And who could fault us for that? After all, some of those perceptions can save our lives!

I’ve heard it said that when we see, we should just see (and not color what we see with hopes, dreams, aversions, fears, doubts, dichotomizations, etc.), and when we hear we should just hear, etc. And by doing that, we free ourselves from our suffering because in those moments there is no self intervening in the process.

Even ignoring the fact that physical suffering from thirst, hunger, pain, age, and disease is still “suffering” even when it is freed from all of our self-colorations, and what we perceive through our senses is always perspectival, so that while there may be no self involved in the perception, there is certainly a perspective limiting the visceral experience to a certain body, the truth is, everything arises empty of intrinsic self-reality, based upon conditions, uncreated and uncaused, as the spontaneous naturing that some call dharmata.

This idea that perception through any sense door is somehow being in contact with something real, or at least “pure” (as in “pure experience”) is an illusion. It is an illusion because there is no thing to be in contact with, there is no entity who can drop the illusion of self-colorations, there isn’t even an entity that natures that which appears—even the Buddhist Dharmakaya is empty of an intrinsic self-nature. What we perceive arises in our “mind,” which is the name we give to that perspective we glom onto because of our confusion and misunderstanding, not realizing what that perspective truly is. So in seeing, there is only the fabrication of form and light. In hearing, there is only the fabrication of sounds, etc. We are never not in intimate “contact” with what is arising because there is and can be no separation in reality, and what arises does so in the mind. So what’s going on?

Literally, what is going on is that we have come to understand that experiences are based upon perceptions, that arise from conditions of some external kind in conjunction with a body with some specific “senses.” Many Buddhists include consciousness of thoughts as a sixth human sense, but a more insightful view is found in those teachings that point out that there is only one sense—that our dichotomization of experience involves a transfer of the source of perceptions from the dharmata (which is not a thing, it’s just the essential character of the activity I am referring to as “naturing”) to some physical equipment inherent in human and non-human lifeforms and their associated mental faculties that are distinguished based upon the kind of physical phenomena that is sensed.

If you are starting to feel that “in naturing, just naturing” than you are well on your way to complete freedom.

Gaining freedom from conceptual thinking is the first step. I did it by noticing how thoughts arise—presentially—based upon conditions, but uncaused by any condition. Being empty of origin, empty of an intrinsic self-nature, how could their content (meaning) be otherwise than empty? And yet, they spontaneously appeared, and that was necessary to see. And see that I did, and you can, through the practice of meditation. But seeing that thoughts are empty of origin, means I am not creating them, and yet, if I focused upon them I found them arising in a coherent stream of thoughts strung together for as long as I attended to them. And if I looked away in another direction towards some other focus, that stream of thoughts changed! All of the words of this essay arose because of the direction of my attention and various manifesting conditions that include a desire to share something that I’ve found. “Authorship” is an exaggeration of an activity that is spontaneously natured, uncaused, by no entity at all. And if that doesn’t take your breath away… but you can’t stop here.

Once we see through conceptual thinking, our next step is not to just “be in the moment” averting our attention away from conceptual thought, it must be to see into this process of self-less naturing. And for that, I didn’t use thoughts, instead I turned my attention towards a phenomenon that had always been there for me to use—the self-arising sounds of the dharmata, which are the resonances of that self-less activity of naturing. I listened to the “sounds” of thoughts arising, as well as my whole being arising, and it was there in those sounds that I came to realize that all of our perceptions arise in exactly the same way—not through some hybrid physical process and half-understood concepts—and that this meant that “pure experiences” were just as empty of intrinsic self-nature, and therefore truth, as any conceptual thoughts that might arise for me. Useful, yes. All of it—thoughts, experiences, understandings—were useful in a practical sense, but wrong in a real sense, thus always lying somewhere between truth and untruth. I had to see through all of it, and in doing so, in direct experience, not “out there” in some kind of illusory world, or even “in here” in a confused mental understanding based on beliefs, but just directly experienced through peeling off all those layers of concepts and understandings, perspectives, and causes, freeing myself from conceptual thought and intelligible appearances. And in the end, there was no “myself” to free. What needed to be done was to unbridle, unimpede, unobstruct, uninhibit, and stop interfering with, the natural and spontaneous inventiveness of this self-less naturing with my wandering attention and its searching for meaning in understandings and ideas, whether based upon experience or not.

It is through concepts that we learn of the problem. It is through conceptual thought that we learn of techniques to overcome the problem. It is by letting concepts go that we free our minds, opening it to other possibilities. It is through the intelligible appearances that we can truly see reality in action. But it is in giving up those intelligible appearances by training our minds to stop wandering aimlessly all over the flowerbed, that we allow the true self-less naturing to appear in all of its awesome beauty. And it is in that, that all the confused thinking and frightening appearances can be seen to be nothing other than what we casually call “our mind,” i.e. self-less naturing—the dharmata.

This is the strategy, half-measures are only tactics in a never-ending story. End the story.

(This has been excerpted from the introduction to my forthcoming book, “Tranquillity’s Secret.”)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: